'MEMS Nanoinjector' A Microscopically Small Lance Can Now Transfer DNA

By Gabrielle Jonas on May 13, 2014 5:50 PM EDT

A Needle Naked To The Human Eye
This SEM (scanning electron microscope) image shows the nanoinjector next to a latex bead the same size as an egg cell. You can see the size of the nanoinjector and its lance compared to a cell. (Photo: Brian Jensen/BYU)
A Needle Naked To The Human Eye
This SEM (scanning electron microscope) image shows the nanoinjector next to a latex bead the same size as an egg cell. You can see the size of the nanoinjector and its lance compared to a cell.

Biomechanical engineers have developed a high-tech method of introducing DNA into egg cells, they wrote in Tuesday's issue of Review of Scientific Instruments. The researchers, from Brigham Young University, Washington D.C., are using a so-called micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) nanoinjector, which can inject DNA into mouse single-cell embryos consisting of a fertilized egg, or zygotes. The nanoinjector, a lance only billionths of a meter long, ups the ante from the existing method of gene transfer, which depends on a glass pipette.

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Though the glass pipette has successfully transferred genetic material into a new cells for decades, surplus solution from thepipette bursts 25 to 40 percent of cells. The nanoinjector, which conducts electrical pulses down its shaft to attract and repel DNA, offers greater precision and a higher cell survival rate, said one of the paper's authors, Brian Jensen, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Brigham Young University in Washington, D.C.  The biomechanical engineers use positive voltage to attract DNA to the outside of the lance, and then insert the lance into cells where they deposit the DNA. Because the method is not dependent on a water solution to move the DNA around, cells are less likely to burst in the genetic transfer process. 

These more efficient injections, reduces the cost of creating transgenic animals Jensen said. The technology may also allow injections in animals with cloudy or opaque embryos. "Such animals, including many interesting larger ones like pigs, would be attractive for a variety of transgenic technologies," said Jensen. "We believe nanoinjection may open new fields of discovery in these animals."

The ability to transfer a gene or DNA sequence from one animal into the genome of another plays a critical role in in the creation of so-called transgenic animals, which are then used for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes research. Because the electrical forces are strong enough to force DNA into the cell's nucleus-without having to aim the lance directly into the pronucleus containing the cell's DNA, the possibility of the "future automation" of such injections are next, according to Jensen. Indeed, Jensen is already injecting cells in a cell culture using an array of lances that can inject hundreds of thousands of cells at once. "The lance array may enable gene therapy using a culture of a patient's own cells," he said.

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